Meeting Tim Duncan
Reflections from #21’s Jersey Retirement Ceremony: a tribute to the ultimate teammate
I met Tim Duncan one time. In the summer of 2000, I showed up for one of my first pick-up games as a walk-on at Wake Forest. As I diligently tied my shoes against the wall, Tim sat down beside me to put on his shoes -- he was back in Winston-Salem for a visit and decided to workout with our team. At that point, the former All-American and, then NBA All-Star, looked at me and said, “What’s up?” I said, “Hey man” and then decided to tie my shoes some more.
Fast forward 16 years later, Tim Duncan’s jersey retirement ceremony was one of the more meaningful moments that I’ve experienced in sports. As I watched alongside my Dad and six-year old son, I recognized that the reveal of the #21 jersey in the rafters was really a sideshow. As it turned out, this night was about relationships that have endured over a long period of time. It was about an organization where individuals get over themselves. It was about a coach who loved his player. It was about celebrating the effectiveness of one leader and his relentless pursuit to be the kind of teammate that his teammates needed him to be.
The testimonies shared and speeches made were not about coach / player speak that you often hear in a typical interview in sports. There was no vagueness, no generalities about character – only authentic recollections of a real person. Sunday night, I felt like I was at a rehearsal dinner enjoying the gift of story without the pressure of having to speak.
At one point during the night, Tony Parker described a moment where Tim walked through the gym and saw an intern rebounding for Boban Marjonobic, a 7 foot rookie center from Serbia. Knowing the curve that Boban needed to get through to improve, Tim quickly replaced the intern and went on to play one-on-one for 20 minutes – the only catch was that Tim (at age 40) played defense the whole time.
In a video, Bruce Bowen described Tim’s unique ability to take joy in other people’s success as he recalled the genuine excitement that Duncan had when Kawhi Leonard received MVP honors during their most recent championship run.
Manu Ginobili shared one of his most impactful moments with Tim. At one point during the playoffs several years ago, a Ginobili end of game turnover against Sacramento led to a Spurs loss. Manu was devastated and after receiving several phone calls in his hotel room that night, he decided to unplug the phone next to his bed as he didn’t want to talk to anyone. Shortly thereafter, he heard another ring and quickly realized that there was also a phone in the bathroom. It was Tim, “let’s go to dinner man.” Manu said they talked about everything but basketball and it was exactly what he needed. Intuitively, Duncan knew how to encourage the person that needed encouraging.
With three kids now under 6 and living in San Antonio, I sometimes feel farther from Wake Forest than I’d like to, but as I listened to my former coach (freshman year), Dave Odom, remind 18,000 people of how all of this began with Tim, I felt close to Winston-Salem. Coach did a great job and assured Spurs Nation that there is another community that loves Tim just as much as they do!
Coach went on to describe his first phone call with Tim and, then another, with Greg Popovich four years later, both of which changed the trajectory of Wake Forest and Spurs basketball respectively. This night couldn’t get any better for a coach I would think. It was a win for Coach Odom, but also for all those who helped shape and inform Tim Duncan’s college experience as a student-athlete: former professors, coaches, teammates, trainers, team doctors, cafeteria staff, office staff, equipment managers, athletic department, Screamin’ Demons, custodians, and academic advisors. This night was a win for Coach Danny Manning and the culture he is building - it was a win for Wake Forest as the values of our university were reflected through the story of team.
Coach Popovich referenced Tim as the most welcoming person; someone who always made time for and showed attention to rookies. Can you remember the last time you heard an A-lister or superstar described as welcoming?
It’s well documented that it takes mental toughness to play for Greg Popovich. Over the years, I’ve heard Pop express gratitude towards the uniqueness of his players allowing him to coach them the way that he does -- tough. He reminded fans at the ceremony how unique it was to have a player like Tim handle criticism. He said, “If your superstar can take a hit now and then [from coach], everyone else can shut the hell up and stay in line.”
With emotion and then pause, Coach Popovich said, “The most important comment I can make about Tim Duncan is that I can honestly say to Mr. and Mrs. Duncan who have passed, that that man right there is exactly the same person now as who he was when he walked in the door.”
Perhaps David Robinson, during a video portion of the evening, provided framework for all of the comments that would be shared when he said that Tim had a unique ability to exude both humility and strength – two qualities that are often mutually exclusive and maybe the most important ingredients in being a teammate.
Even my son was captivated by what was going on…it was almost like he was wondering why there was such a close connection between these players and coaches -- why do they look like they are about to cry, Daddy?
At one point, he asked me with a big smile on his face, “Daddy, did you ever meet Tim Duncan when you were at Wake Forest?” You could tell he really wanted me to say yes and, the answer was yes...well, kind of.
I never told you the end of that story from earlier -- the one about the pick-up games. Beyond hello, I never got to talk to Tim again that day nor did I get to play in any of the games. After each game was over that afternoon, I would walk out onto the court to start shooting to let everyone know that I was available for the next game. The strategy just never seemed to work.
I guess you could say that afternoon in Reynolds Gymnasium was only a foreshadowing of what was to come in my career in terms of my playing time at Wake Forest. Some called me the student’s player as I was not your prototypical D-1 athlete...before one game against Duke, one of the Cameron Crazies yelled at me, “Hey #20, you gotta love a guy who’s just out here for the love the of the game.” Fair enough. I played 59 minutes in 4 years.
Ironically though, I don’t even remember what Tim said during his speech Sunday night. He sincerely thanked everyone and acknowledged that all bets were off since he spoke for more than 30 seconds and didn’t wear jeans. True to form, the night was not so much about what Tim said.
Unselfish, welcoming, hard-working, joy for others success, empathetic, relentless, competitor, focused, mentally tough, champion, thoughtful...all of these words used by Spurs players and coaches to describe the greatest power forward of all time and according to one former teammate…the best teammate ever to play professional sports.
On Sunday night, my son saw a glimpse of what it meant to be a teammate. And I guess you could say we met Tim Duncan together...because meeting Tim on this night was not about getting to play with him in a pickup game or figuring out how we could get his autograph, but about hearing from his teammates and coaches – who he was – what he did -- and how he served in these relationships for over 20 years.